We were returning from a long and singularly luckless outing in the jungle on elephant-back, and had almost reached the road to the rest house. There was a wide patch of lantana and tall grass between us and the road, with a flat-topped rock to one side of it, and the leopard lay stretched at ease atop the rock, watching us.
We were too far away to see the markings on its coat, and it lay so still and grey that, but for the twitching forward of its ears and the slow turn of its head the better to observe us, we would have missed it altogether, and thought it only a part of the rock even if we had seen it. I had the elephant moved away into the scrub at once, so that our backs were to the watcher, and cautioned everyone not to turn and look at it.
When we were well past the rock, I held a brief, whispered conference with the mahout. Some years ago this man and I had had a rather terrifying experience with a large male leopard and I pointed out to him that this was a much smaller animal, very much at ease and therefore unlikely to go for us, and that even if it turned aggressive, I would be nearer the leopard than he, and that he could rely on me in a crisis-a thing which I had already once proved to him. He looked at me with a contemptuous expression on his face and asked: “who’s afraid of this cat?”
We moved round towards the rock again, zigzagging in a seemingly aimless, but carefully studied, approach. When we were still some 60 yards away, and the leopard was obscured by lantana branchlets, I took a few pictures to accustom it to the thud of my shutter, taking care not to look at it directly, but only through my reflex camera. It seemed utterly self-possessed, and not the least bit worried by our halting, slow approach.
I was sure that if we went slowly, took care not to look at it directly, and made no jerky movement or sound, I could take a clear picture of the leopard from under 25 yards with my lens more or less on a level with the rock. The light was ideal.
It was a smallish leopard, remarkably richly coloured, with the black rosettes clear against the golden sienna of its coat, and a shapely, beautifully-set head-a leopardess, evidently, and probably under 85 lb. With each casually-gained foot, I felt a growing excitement, but had the sense to suppress it and go very slow. Only two more yards to gain, and the last lantana twig would be clear of the leopard, which was in no way alarmed by our proximity.
Then suddenly our elephant began to dance a jig. Luckily I was able to retain my precarious seat, right on the front edge of the pad, by grabbing a rope with my right hand, while holding on grimly to the 10 lb camera with my left. I pressed my shoulder against the mahout, and whispered fiercely into his ear to halt the elephant. Out mount continued to twist and turn and fidget, and out of the tail of my eye I saw the leopard prick its ears and slightly elevate its head, the first sign of alertness it had shown so far. A frown creased its forehead as it watched the extraordinary performance we were staging right in front of it.
Then it rose unhurriedly to its feet, lazily stretched itself fore and aft with a fluid, see-sawing movement of superlative grace, and slid softly into the tall grass beneath the rock and disappeared.
It was useless blaming the mahout. It was the sudden fear in his mind that had fled down his legs and caused him to make the elephant dance jerkily with a series of quick, disjointed kicks. No doubt the recollection of our old misadventure had unnerved him, but there was no point in asking him to rally himself-a man in a panic does not become calm and steady all at once by being asked to pull himself together, and I have felt sudden fear too often myself when close to wild animals to blame another for the feeling.
In fact, I write this merely to tell you how self-possessed that leopardess was throughout, and how narrowly I missed the first clear chance I have had of photographing a wild leopard from near enough to get a really good picture. And perhaps it is the photographer’s equivalent of the tendency of anglers to dwell on the one that got away that moves me to retail this incident in such regretful detail!